Marta Farias and her daughter were overweight. Unhappy with the extra pounds and worried about the implications of a family history of diabetes for her child, she signed up for Building Bridges at Waukegan Public Library. Today, Farias has changed her family’s eating habits and lost 25 pounds. She has also become a volunteer promotora for Building Bridges, spreading the word about the four week health education program to neighbors and friends.
Doña Alicia suffers from carpal tunnel in her wrists and arthritis in her hands, the legacy of a lifetime of factory work. At Building Bridges, she learned a few things she could do at home to increase her range of motion and relieve the pain, from a doctor who spoke Spanish and understood that sometimes an operation or prescription medication is out of reach. Grateful for the help and enthusiastic about her experience, she, like Marta, has become a promotora.
Both women are beneficiaries of the Alliance for Human Services, a two-year old network that connects 35 Lake County health and human services programs to each other and, as in the case of Building Bridges, to funding support for projects that span multiple agencies.
“Our focus is really on making the Lake County community a healthier place, where there’s greater communication and greater collaboration in the health and human services arena,” says Alliance CEO John Shustitzky, Ph.D. “Our first project together was Building Bridges through Navigation of Health Services, which we launched in 2012 with a grant from the Healthcare Foundation.”
With a history of offering innovative programming, the Waukegan Public Library was chosen to lead the work. “They were already doing outreach; it was a natural extension to turn to them to help us recruit, train, and launch health ambassadors to take the curriculum out into the neighborhoods,” says Shustitzky.
Carmen Patlan, the library’s community engagement and Spanish literacy manager, had already noted the need in the largely Latino community the library serves. “In our conversational ESL program, one of the subjects that consistently came up was health,” she says.
“People would say, ‘Well, how do I make an appointment? How do I fill out all those forms they give me?’ So we piloted a program that we call functional health literacy, trying to help people understand what they need to know to take care of themselves and use healthcare services.”
With the new funding, that pilot became the four-week Building Bridges program, and the promotoras that Patlan had been recruiting and training began the work of talking to the community.
“In the first week of Building Bridges, we cover a few basics,” says Patlan, “like making an appointment, filling out medical forms, talking with a doctor, and how and when to use 911 for emergencies.”
In the second week, participants learn what they can do to improve their health through diet and exercise. Week three features guest speakers—experts from Alliance members such as Lake County Health Department, Rosalind Franklin University, or Erie Family/HealthReach—who address specific topics ranging from asthma and diabetes to heart disease and breast cancer. During the final session, participants learn about the importance of having a medical home and delve into the specifics of accessing primary care. After an explanation of insurance eligibility and the Affordable Care Act, they are referred to primary care providers.
Pre- and post-program testing measures participants’ knowledge; basic demographic information entered in ServicePoint enables staff to follow-up with and support those who have gone through the program and facilitates effective referrals.
“All ages and all sexes participate,” says Patlan of the classes. “It’s a welcoming environment, and students feel comfortable.” Still, she acknowledges, it’s not easy to engage people to take advantage of the resource. In 2014, just 280 students completed the class, compared to more than 1,000 for ESL.
“In our community, families are in economic survival mode, so health is definitely not a priority. That’s why the promotoras are so important. They’re out there every day, they see families and can say, for example, ‘Did you know this is how diabetes affects us Latinos?’”
For the coming year, Patlan has set her team a goal of 440 participants, and the library has applied directly to the Foundation for continued program support.
“Getting this kind of information out there is just so important,” Patlan says. “It’s an uphill battle sometimes, but I think about people like Teresa, who was struggling with breast cancer. She’s here in this country alone, and she told me, ‘If I had not come to this program, I would be dead right now. It helped me be brave and speak up on my own, and to learn what my options were.’”